A novel collector
The legacy left by art collector and novelist Hugh Walpole
History’s greatest art collectors have often been fascinating characters too — the likes of the Medici, Charles I, Isabella Stewart Gardner, and Leo and Gertrude Stein had character and hinterland as well as taste and discrimination: they didn’t just acquire art wholesale, although they could do that too, but commissioned it.
Their modern heirs are more likely simply to be very rich — the late Paul Allen with his Microsoft billions; Roman Abramovich (whose collection, according to the Oligarch Files, a recently leaked cache of financial papers, is worth $963 million); and Bernard Arnault, who has finessed his luxury brands, Louis Vuitton, Moët, Tiffany et al, into enough art to fill an entire new museum designed by Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris.
Despite considerably shallower pockets, Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) belonged more to the first group than the second. He took collecting art, mostly made by his contemporaries, as seriously as he took the many other strands that comprised his life. Although he was born in New Zealand, he perhaps inherited the collecting gene from Robert Walpole, the greatest non-royal British art connoisseur, who was a distant relative on his father’s side.
A peripatetic and unhappy school career at an assortment of English institutions left Walpole feeling “that people took my pale and pimpled countenance for the mirror of my soul”.
He was wrong: while still at Cambridge he became the intimate of H.G. Wells, Edmund Gosse and Robert Ross. Even during a brief post-university spell as an English tutor his charges included the children of Elizabeth von Arnim.
This gift for impressive social connection continued when he decided on writing as a career. A fan letter sent to Henry James resulted in a close friendship that remained seemingly untainted when Walpole unsuccessfully propositioned the older man, at least according to Somerset Maugham.
Walpole published his first novel, The Wooden Horse, in 1909 and rapidly became a novel-a-year writer. Prolificity was no bar to success and he garnered favourable reviews, strong sales and a public profile on both sides of the Atlantic.
Walpole bequeathed some of the best pieces to the nation
Although poor eyesight left him unfit for active duty during the war, Walpole went to Moscow as a journalist and then to the front with the Red Cross — once dragging a wounded soldier to safety when his fellows refused to help, an act that won him a bravery medal. He later ran the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau and met Russian luminaries such as Maxim Gorky.
Back in England and on the friends and acquaintances rolled; from Virginia Woolf, who became a confidante, and Hitler who was introduced to Walpole at the Bayreuth Festival after his release from jail following the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch; to a married policeman named Harold Cheevers, the great love of his life with whom he lived in the Lakes — less gossipy than London.
There was a spell in Hollywood where he worked on the film adaptation of David Copperfield and even appeared as a bit-part player in it. He was asked to work on a script for Little Lord Fauntleroy too. Hollywood money financed much of his art-buying.
In 1945, four years after Walpole’s death, the Leicester Galleries displayed his art collection to the public. It was so voluminous it needed to be shown in three tranches. The Times described the cache as the fruit of a “discerning” collector while the Birmingham Daily Post decided he “must have delighted in each purchase” since “with few exceptions — experiments maybe — one senses the same qualities to be found in the author’s books as his pictures. There is a sureness of line and sensitiveness of texture quite remarkable.”
Walpole bequeathed some of the best pieces to the nation. So, the Tate has a fine large Cézanne watercolour of Mont Sainte-Victoire; a William Blake drawing of The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life; James Tissot’s crowd-pleasing Portsmouth Dockyard showing a soldier in a boat between two pretty girls; a Renoir head of a girl; paintings by Walter Sickert, Augustus John, Ford Madox Brown and a sheaf of Beerbohm caricatures. Other paintings went to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
If most of the bequest was of works by fellow Victorians and Edwardians, Walpole also owned a painting by Stanley Spencer, Sunflower and Dog Worship (detail, left), which sold at Sotheby’s in 2011 for £5.4 million; as well as a Pissarro watercolour; a Rossetti drawing of Fanny Cornforth; works by Gainsborough and Constable; prints by Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso; and sculptures by Rodin, Eric Gill and Jacob Epstein. Most of these were sold, as was his book collection, which included signed copies from friends such as Joseph Conrad.
Walpole’s was a significant and eclectic collection which, in its quirks and quality — a dash of the avant-garde and touch of the modern old masters — was clearly the reflection of his own taste. His funds were not infinite, so not for him the posse of dealers and art advisors with an eye on future prices, but rather the accretion of works of art to live with.
Walpole’s books, more efficient than profound, may be little-read today but he can still offer lessons in how to collect.
This article is taken from the November 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe